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Future Shocks Part 1: Plague

April 11, 2010

Future Shocks Part 1: Plague

This will be the first of several analyses I will do one the subject of futurology and fears that have been popularised in books, entertainment and the media. I will be looking at the most dire prediction for the future and how they stack up against plausibility.



A recent incarnation to the theme of plague in cinema has been the Will Smith movie called I am Legend’. It is the third time that same story has been revisited to express itself in film. The origin called The Last Man on Earth I have not seen so I won’t comment upon, but The Omega Man I have seen and I Am Legend. The theme is the same in both as one man tries to hold out for survival against terrible odds and all reason.

If I was to make a judgement about which of the two films was better ‘Omega’ or ‘Legend’, I would have to say that despite being made in 1971 and very groovy ‘Omega Man’ still offers a better crafted script. It is not that I do not like the personalized alienation of ‘Legend’, it does show loneliness in all its glory. However it is the gaps in plausibility and expression that leave me with the impression that film will not date well. ‘The Omega Man’ as personified by Charlton Heston offered an alpha male protagonist who survives through sheer will power and with the help of his trusty sub-machine guns. Like Will Smith his entire world was killed by a man made plague and he seems to be the only one not infected. Unlike ‘Legend’ his antagonists are not mindless zombies that kill for no reason and operate in waves of absolute stupidity. The other difference is that the plague in ‘Omega Man‘ is a deliberate act of germ warfare gone wrong but in ‘Legend’ is a cancer cure mutated.

Plausibility seems to fly out the door on the more recent version as the cancer cure mutates to produce hungry zombies who are too stupid not to kill the first ‘normal’ they find but smart enough to set traps and not kill each other. Skin that erupts in sunlight is closer to fighting mythical vampires than diseased humans. The infected in ‘Omega Man’ are different and operate with a realistic motivation. The modern world has produced the technology to the point that it is destroying them and as a result they have rejected it fanatically and religiously. “What is the definition of a scientist? It is man who understood nothing until there was nothing left to understand.” For them killing the last remaining technology loving scientist is the will of God because their sickness has left them open to suggestion and religious fanaticism.


Zombies seem to be used as the example of what would happen if mankind ever lost control of technology. The concept of mindless killers that wander about and devour the flesh of friend and family offer the primal fear that even the most sacred icons of love and family are under threat. The plague can also be seen as a satanic possession or even political indoctrination. The zombies are representatives of attitudes about the herd mentality of society that produce slave societies and imprisoned minds. The zombie is also a victim of the ‘Cold War’ and can represent our fears of what it would be like to live under Communism (the same can be said for Fascism or Evil Corporations). A plague story that has zombies is often sending a message that someone is trying to steal our minds. In these types of stories the plausibility of the story is secondary to the message of the writers. The film ‘Resident Evil offers very little in the way of explanation but does make a big point about the Evil Umbrella Corporation that just so happens to be suicidally evil for no apparent reason. (So much for a succession plan for the share holders.) However the film ‘28 Days Later’ does show zombies that are wild and aggressive but also deserving of sympathy. Their motivation does not seem to be to eat the ‘normal’s‘ but rather to attack or infect them. Why they don’t kill each other is never explained but we can forgive that if we forgive it in ‘Legend’ and ‘Resident Evil’. However the biggest leap of faith we must make in ‘28 Days’ is how the disease called ‘Rage’ infects someone and they became a killer zombie 20-30 seconds. Is it a virus or a drug? Even drugs are not that clever to destroy all conscience will and redirect it as pure aggression. We are also expected to believe that in that period of 30 second the virus has spread so aggressively that infected person can spew up a contagious cocktail. Zombies may make great drama but I doubt that they will ever exist as they are portrayed in cinema.


Albert Camus offers a very realist scenario in his novel ‘The Plague’. I am yet to see a version of this produced in film (correct me if I am wrong). His plague is a traditional killer from the past and was carried by rats that were exterminated early in the story. Well researched and told with vivid imagination he writes the story of a village quarantined as the population becomes infected. Rather than focusing upon the ‘infected as evil’ this story tells about the need to fight against other social diseases like fascism. The Plague in Camus’ view also represented oppression. The imagery is vivid with the doctor lancing swollen lymph glands to drain puss and the climatic disposing of the bodies. Taken by the score as they are anonymous and unceremoniously let slide down planks into a giant mass grave to be covered with lime and buried forever. The Camus scenario is similar to what might occur if say the Bird Flu Pandemic ever hits and has been displayed on smaller scale with Foot and Mouth outbreaks.


Paranoia, recrimination and fear of infection often drive the stories of a future plague. Terrible mathematics to make dire prediction about the spread of aids proved incorrect. Yet the fear of infection did alter the way blood is collected and public education programs. Xenophobia can also be another driver as the foreigner not just a competitor for your job but a virus that will destroy your nation and kill your loved ones. The self aggrandisement of jingoism tries to frame everyone else as an enemy that is trying to infect and pollute the mind of their nation. There are thousand reasons why the fear of a Plague means much more than just microbes. Yet it is the Plague that does corrupt the body which is the true possibility. The mind can create its own problems as shown by the panic caused by people sending small amounts of talcum powder in the mail.


The future of a zombie filled world where only a few humans survive is a flawed scenario. Even an attack of anthrax has limited scope to spread if detected. The chance of a war leading to germ warfare is real but so far the fear of unintentionally infecting your own side has been a big deterrent. The harsh lesson of using mustard gas in WW1 was enough to prevent it being used in WW2. A new disease or the re-emergence of an old Plague could still occur and if it does perhaps Albert Camus offers the best view of how people will react.

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